If corrupt senior officials in China were real tigers, the new Chinese leadership’s relentless campaign to put them behind bars would almost certainly have alarmed animal rights groups. In the 19 months since Xi Jinping became the head of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), 35 “tigers,” now synonymous with corrupt officials holding offices equivalent to a deputy minister or provincial governor and above, have fallen. Since the beginning of 2014, 18 “tigers” have been caged. One of them is a recently retired Politburo member who was also a vice chairman of the Central Military Affairs Commission, the central command of the People’s Liberation Army.
Should Xi’s tiger hunt continue at the current pace, as is most likely the case, he will soon set the record for prosecuting the most senior officials for corruption. In the decade before Xi’s rise to the top, the CCP jailed 65 “tigers.” With Xi’s anti-corruption drive ensnaring 35 “tigers,” a lot more “tigers” at large will be thrown into the cage in the coming years.
To be sure, Beijing’s war on corruption has also killed hundreds and thousands of “flies” – more junior corrupt officials. According to official data, the CCP punished 182,000 party members in 2013, roughly 40,000 more than the annual average for the preceding five years. More notably, of those disciplined by the CCP in 2013, 9,600 were prosecuted (almost double the number of party members prosecuted annually in the preceding five years).
Judging by the momentum of Xi’s campaign, corrupt officials in China must be living in constant dread (the media has reported a marked rise of suicides by officials suspected of corruption). But while we should all cheer the efforts of Xi and his colleagues, we must recognize they still have a tougher fight ahead.
To make his anti-corruption campaign truly successful, Xi has to complete three difficult tasks. In the short-term, he will have to bring down a super-tiger to show that no one is above the law. All eyes have focused on a recently retired member of the Politburo Standing Committee, the party’s most-powerful decision-making body. So far, Xi’s dragnet has claimed this individual’s family members and former close aides. Even though the Chinese government has not formally charged this person with corruption, it is public knowledge that he has been detained.
What will happen to this former top leader will become a litmus test of Xi’s political resolve and personal authority. In the post-Mao era, no members of the Politburo Standing Committee, sitting or retired, have ever been charged with corruption. Thus, sending this person to jail would break a taboo and could even motivate his patrons, loyalists, and officials fearful of the same fate to form a coalition conspiring against Xi. However, failing to do so would show that officials above a certain rank enjoy effective legal immunity and will effectively discredit Xi’s anti-corruption campaign. Worse still, allowing this super-tiger to roam free would undermine Xi’s authority because the public would conclude that Xi does not have enough political clout to slay this super-tiger.
The second task for Xi is to dispel widely shared doubts and cynicism about the motivations of his anti-corruption drive and the integrity of the legal procedures used in implementing the drive. More specifically, Xi and his fellow tiger-hunters must allow maximum transparency and give suspected corrupt officials the legal rights guaranteed under Chinese law. These suspects should have vigorous defense and access to evidence gathered by the party’s graft-busters. The legal proceedings against them should be open to the public. The relatively transparent public trial of Bo Xilai in August last year should set the bar for future anti-corruption trials. In particular, when the rumored super-tiger, who as the former internal security chief is expected to be well-versed in Chinese criminal procedures, goes on trial, the CCP leadership should have the confidence in the strength of their case and respect the legal rights of this disgraced official.
The last difficult task for the CCP leadership is to bring the anti-corruption campaign to a successful conclusion. Campaigns by definition cannot last forever. They require a burst of intense energy. But when they become overextended, they lose momentum and deliver diminishing returns. The CCP is already paying another high political price: the anti-corruption campaign has already caused widespread fear and uncertainty among its rank and file. As “tigers” and “flies” keep falling dead, the party itself could split into warring factions.
The ideal solution to this conundrum is the “routinization of anti-corruption efforts. Xi should empower China’s watchful media, strengthen the rule of law, and rely on transparency of government to monitor and police Chinese officials. Granted, this would be a difficult step for him to take, but this is the only alternative if he intends to leave behind an enduring legacy not only as China’s greatest tiger-hunter but also as the first leader in Chinese history who has succeeded in fighting corruption by building a new and more effective system.
Minxin Pei is the Tom and Margot Pritzker ’72 Professor of Government and a non-resident senior fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.